In April 2008, shortly after the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, described the transfer of the prophetic mantle to President Thomas S. Monson.
Fourteen men, he said, all apostles of the Lord holding the priesthood keys of the kingdom of God on the earth, met in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple in order to reorganize the First Presidency of the Church. “There was no question about what would be done, no hesitancy,” President Packer said. “We knew that the senior apostle was the President of the Church” (“The Twelve,” April 2008 general conference).
Similarly, President Hinckley explained how the process of succession worked after the death of President Howard W. Hunter. “[On Sunday, 12 March 1995] all of the living ordained apostles gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer in the upper room of the temple. Here we sang a sacred hymn and prayed together. We partook of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, renewing in that sacred, symbolic testament our covenants and our relationship with Him who is our divine Redeemer.
“The presidency was then reorganized, following a precedent well established through generations of the past.
“There was no campaigning, no contest, no ambition for office. It was quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred. It was done after the pattern which the Lord Himself had put in place” (“This Is the Work of the Master,” April 1995 general conference).
If only all transfers of earthly authority among the kingdoms and principalities of the world could be similarly described — “quiet, peaceful, simple, and sacred." The Lord has established an inspired system to see that His Kingdom continues without interruption, conflict or speculation.
The “well established” precedent, as described by President Hinckley, was set after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith when the Church was faced with a unique challenge — who would lead The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Several individuals claimed the right to lead the Church, including Sidney Rigdon, a member named James Strang and Brigham Young, who was President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Fortunately, before his death, the Prophet Joseph had prepared for the transfer of leadership by conferring the keys and powers of the priesthood to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When Brigham Young spoke to the gathered Saints in August 1844, he said, “I do not care who leads the church, but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it. I have the keys and the means of obtaining the mind of God on the subject.
“Joseph conferred upon our heads [referring to the Twelve Apostles] all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship which he himself held before he was taken away.
“How often has Joseph said to the Twelve, ‘I have laid the foundation and you must build thereon, for upon your shoulders the kingdom rests’” (History of the Church, 7:230).
George Q. Cannon, who would later serve in the First Presidency, and many others who heard Brigham speak, described the miraculous event that confirmed to the early Saints who the Lord had chosen to lead His Church. As Brigham Young addressed the congregation, it was as if “Joseph had risen from the dead and again spoken in their hearing, ” George Cannon recalled. “Not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard, but it seemed in the eyes of the people as if it were the very person of Joseph which stood before them. A more wonderful and miraculous event than was wrought that day in the presence of that congregation we never heard of. The Lord gave his people a testimony that left no room for doubt as to who was the man chosen to lead them” (History of the Church, 7:236).
Although the early Saints experienced uncertainty following the death of their beloved prophet, today members of the Church have no need to feel apprehension. Through clear process and “firmly established precedents,” the Lord has ensured that the kingdom will continue to “roll on” (Doctrine and Covenants 65:2) following the death of a Church president.
“The work of the Lord is endless. Even when a powerful leader dies, not for a single instant is the Church without leadership, thanks to the kind Providence who gave His kingdom continuity and perpetuity,” President Spencer W. Kimball taught.
“The moment life passes from a President of the Church, a body of men become the composite leader — these men already seasoned with experience and training. The appointments have long been made, the authority given, the keys delivered. No ‘running’ for position, no electioneering, no stump speeches. What a divine plan! How wise our Lord, to organize so perfectly beyond the weakness of frail, grasping humans” (“The Need for a Prophet,” April 1970 general conference).
In an address in October 2014, President Russell M. Nelson testified: “The Church today has been organized by the Lord Himself. He has put in place a remarkable system of governance that provides redundancy and backup. That system provides for prophetic leadership even when the inevitable illnesses and incapacities may come with advancing age. Counterbalances and safeguards abound so that no one can ever lead the Church astray. Senior leaders are constantly being tutored such that one day they are ready to sit in the highest councils” (“Sustaining the Prophets,” October 2014 general conference).
After five years of service as President of the Church, President Monson reflected on his apostolic service and made the statement: “Despite any health challenges that may come to us, despite any weakness in body or mind, we serve to the best of our ability. I assure you that the Church is in good hands. The system set up for the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] assures [us] that it will always be in good hands and that, come what may, there is no need to worry or to fear. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, whom we follow, whom we worship, and whom we serve, is ever at the helm” (“Message from President Thomas S. Monson,” Church News, Feb. 3, 2013, p. 9).